A trip to the Keg and Case Market in St. Paul, Minn. will leave any hungry shopper feeling full and happy. This food hall, located on the historic grounds of the Schmidt Brewery, is filled with a diverse array of gourmet items. Feeling like a microbrew and a slice of pizza? You can find them here. Want to take home some gourmet vinegar and mushrooms grown from an in-house fruiting chamber? Keg and Case is the place for you. Heck, shoppers can even get pickle-flavored cotton candy if they so choose.
Amidst all these fancy foods, one of the most popular stops for any visitor is K’Nack (pronounced with a hard “K”). The concept is pretty simple — it sells sandwiches, snack sticks and other deli products — but the secret to K’Nack’s success is in the quality. These aren’t just any cured meats. These are award-winning meat products that have been recognized in numerous state, national and international competitions. K’Nack is an extension of RJ’s Meats, a renowned meat market in Hudson, Wis., owned and operated by Rick & Anne Reams. It’s a labor of love for Rick and his family.
Food halls, according to USA Today’s website 10best.com, are one of the biggest culinary trends in the country, with an estimated 180 in the United States. Keg and Case Market was selected by 10best voters as the top new food hall in the country in 2019. There are restaurants around the perimeter of the Market, but the interior is set up somewhat like a trade show. The booths on the inside are run by local businesses — no chains allowed. It can serve as a quick lunch or dinner stop, but it’s a full experience, and visitors are encouraged to peruse all the booths, snacking as they go.
Rick Reams was told about the Keg and Case Market in early 2018 by a neighboring Hudson business that had reserved a booth there. The building itself, a warehouse for the old Schmidt Brewery, was under renovation, and the developers were looking for a butcher to occupy one of the spaces. Reams initially said no to the idea.
“At the time I was 56, and I wanted to transition out,” he said. “I didn’t want to commute. I drive eight minutes to work right now, I didn’t want to drive into St. Paul and fight that traffic.
“I casually mentioned it to my oldest son and youngest son who work with us, and they said, ‘Oh no, Dad, we need to do that. Let’s at least go and listen to them,’” he recalls.
Reams’ sons, Anthony and Joe, initially saw the appeal of the Market. Reams knew that adding a St. Paul location would require them to build up their name recognition all over again, as there was no guarantee that RJ’s reputation would carry over to this new location.
“I looked it at an opportunity for growth, with two sons,” he reasons. “This is what they want to do. At our current location, it would be tough to support all the families that way. So I looked at it as an opportunity to get the name known over there.”
They toured the building as it was being renovated and saw its potential. After realizing that one 10-foot by 10-foot slot wasn’t going to be enough space, Reams ended up leasing two slots plus an adjoining partial slot, bringing K’Nack’s total space to 285 square feet. How do they get the message out in a relatively small space? Lots of product, Reams says.
“Almost all of our snack sticks are for sale over there – 12 flavors of snack sticks on display, plus our smoked and linked sausages. We have an 8-foot case where we put our deli meats,” he says.
K’Nack also has plenty of eye-catching decorations. Reams won 15 gold medals at the IFFA 2016 Quality Competition, as well as a cup. He framed several of the medals and displays them and the cup at the booth. Surprisingly, the Market is frequented by visiting Germans or German immigrants, and they understand and appreciate the significance of the IFFA awards.
Location is everything for a business, even in a food hall. K’Nack happens to be located by a staircase that leads to an upstairs brewery. Visitors are welcome to bring their food up to the brewery, so many of them stop at K’Nack for a sandwich before they get a beer. Sandwich-making is a totally new venture, as RJ’s in Hudson has never had the capability for it. Reams and his sons have had to become proficient at it.
“One Saturday, my son Joe and I started the lunch run at 11:20, and the two of us did nothing but make sandwiches until our shifts ended at 3,” Reams comments. Chef Thomas Boemer, who has a couple of restaurants at the Keg and Case market, and his staff offered some prep advice, and their sandwich making skills have increased.
“I envisioned that we would be the butcher and would be selling all these meats, and actually we’re doing more sandwiches than I thought we would,” Reams says.
The shop’s repertoire is diverse, from deli sandwiches like ham or turkey to currywurst on a toasted pretzel bun and leberkase (Bavarian meatloaf). One older gentleman who ordered the leberkase said that it took him back to his childhood in Stuttgart. Another woman who took a bite of her grandson’s Polish sausage sandwich ended up keeping the whole sandwich for herself. Years of running an established business like RJ’s Meats has earned a loyal customer base, but making a meal to go brings back immediate feedback.
“There’s always that anticipation. Is it good, or is he going to throw that sandwich in my face?” Reams jokes. “The only complaint that we’ve had about our sandwich is that there’s no vegetables on it. We’re working on it. But I’ve worked in the meat industry my entire life, and I always jokingly say that we are what we eat, and a cow eats grass which is a leafy green, so therefore meat is a vegetable.”
One of the exclusive items at K’Nack is the meat cone (or if you’re on Instagram, the #meatcone). K’Nack takes a compostable bamboo cone and fills it with three types of deli snacks. The spicy variety has blueberry-jalapeno summer sausage on the outside layer, an Italian salami with wine or a smoked chorizo salami on the inside, and beef and habanero snack stick pieces in the middle. The mild version features garlic summer sausage, fennel salami and traditional beef snack stick bites.
“They’ve been accepted extremely well. It’s a market friendly food, because shoppers can walk through the market and browse in peace, and we get them to try three different snacks,” Reams says, adding that he sold 90 of them on a busy Saturday.
The K’Nack community
Many K’Nack customers are drawn in by the meats, the medals or the smell of sandwiches. Others are sent by other vendors in the Market. Reams says that all the vendors are sociable and talk with the visitors, making recommendations on where to stop. Many recommend K’Nack, and Reams tries to return the favor. It’s part of the close-knit community that has sprung up around the Keg and Case Market.
Several of the products from other vendors have been incorporated into K’Nack’s business. Some of the sandwich buns that are used in its sandwiches come from RJ’s Meats, but they increasingly are using baguettes from Rose Street Patisserie, a neighboring bakery. Croix Valley is also from Hudson and makes barbecue sauces and seasonings. K’Nack uses several of those products on its sandwiches.
Then there is Hobby Farmer, which is a vinegar specialist. K’Nack used to use Hobby Farmer’s pickles as a garnish for its sandwiches, but the demand proved to be too much. Hobby’s Farmer current contribution to K’Nack’s menu came from an unexpected source: switchel.
“It’s an apple cider vinegar-based drink, like what the farmers back in the 1800s would use to refresh themselves. I wanted nothing to do with it,” Reams says.
One day, as Reams was working on setting up the K’Nack booth, the Hobby Farmer owner came by with a bottle of carbonated switchel with cinnamon. Reams gave it a try.
“Now my favorite saying when I’m really wowed by something is to say, ‘Hobby Farmer!’ It’s awesome. Instead of going to grab a beer after work, I’ll get a bottle of switchel,” he says.
K’Nack makes its own curry sauce for its currywurst, and the sauce uses cider vinegar and cayenne. When Joe Reams was short on ingredients one day, he suggested using Hobby Farmer’s cayenne switchel instead. The resulting sauce was so good that Reams wants to start bottling it to sell, both at the K’Nack booth and at RJ’s.
K’Nack fits in well at the Market, among the gourmet cotton candy and the growing mushrooms. Reams was concerned initially about how his products would be received. RJ’s uses antibiotic-free Berkshire pork from Southern Minnesota and Northern Iowa, which would appeal to the foodie clientele. However, he balks at the trend of using celery powder in his products.
“That was one of my concerns, because I do traditional curing and still use sodium nitrite in there,” he says. “If my customer doesn’t want any nitrites, I’ll sell them a fresh sausage.
“We’ve really been accepted really well. People are happy that we’re there, and that makes me happy,” Reams adds.
Adjusting to the K’Nack
With two locations about a half-hour apart in two states, The Reams family has had to juggle its usual roles. Joe Reams has taken on the position of K’Nack general manager, while still being a student at University of Wisconsin-River Falls. Anthony is co-manager of RJ’s along with veteran employee Eric Carlson. He handles operations and scheduling at RJ’s Meats, while also serving as HACCP manager. Reams’ middle son, Aaron, has a full-time job outside of the family businesses but will still work at K’Nack or RJ’s whenever he is asked.
“Their hearts are in it, and I knew that they would do well, but I wasn’t sure until they were put to the test,” Reams says of his sons. “I’m very fortunate for the team that I have. Without them, there’s no way that this would have ever come together.”
As for Reams, he says that he goes wherever he’s needed.
“For the first time in 34 or 35 years, to come down to the IFFA competition [in Madison in January], I had to put in a request for time off! And I had to get it approved by Joe,” he says with a chuckle.
Since deciding to move forward with the new location at the Keg and Case Market, Reams says that the commute hasn’t been as bad as he anticipated. The addition of K’Nack has worked out in many ways. His sons have dealt with adversity and stepped up to the plate. K’Nack has become a successful venture and has left him with thoughts of expanding the booth further. RJ’s has added new business, as a couple of restaurants in the Twin Cities area have become customers since K’Nack opened.
As for Reams, he gets to continue to do the work he loves. He said that when he was in the Air Force in the early ‘80s, he decided that he really wanted to be a local butcher in a small town. He initially shied away from a big city, thinking he would be lost, and instead took over RJ’s Meats, the place where he first apprenticed in the meat industry. However, the neighborhood around the Market has been so supportive that Reams feels like he’s a local butcher there as well, even though he doesn’t actually cut meat at K’Nack.
“Someone once asked me what success is. To me, it’s not how much money’s in the bank, it’s the people coming in saying it’s the best Polish sausage they ever had, it’s the man who said it takes him back to his childhood in Stuttgart. To me, that’s success, because the product we made has satisfied and brought back a memory for them,” he says.